Monday, December 18, 2006

Why We Read Fiction

The November/December 2006 issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER has an article by this title. It explains the "theory of mind," by which psychologists mean our assumption that other people have thought processes similar to our own and that their thoughts and intentions can be extrapolated from their behavior. For instance, if someone gets a glass of water, we assume she was thirsty. We constantly engage in "mind reading," not in the sense of SF telepathy, but "when we attribute to a person a certain mental state on the basis of her observable action." People with autism suffer from a severe lack in this area; their "ability to interpret behavior in terms of underlying mental states is drastically impaired." Interestingly, they also lack interest in fiction and storytelling. Works of fiction "cheat" the reader's mind into treating verbal constructs called characters as "agents endowed with a potential for a rich array of intentional stances. " An author, whether he analyzes the characters' emotions in depth like Henry James or presents actions with a bare minimum of commentary as in many Hemingway stories, supplies "cues" from which we deduce the fictional character's mental state, emotions, and motives. Fiction engages our "mind reading" cognitive capacities in a stimulating interaction with these imaginary people. Reading fiction exercises the mind, just as lifting weights exercises the body. As I've always suspected, storytelling really is important!

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